Bringing the outside in by George Chilton

Bringing the outside in

I’m very honoured to be writing a guest post on Phil’s blog. He has asked me to look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of using authentic materials in class.

First off I should really explain my current view of teaching. I like to think of a class as having the properties of a conversation – a dynamic and dialogic environment. In other words; a class is a space where the students are engaged and put in a position where they can really contribute both to the shape and content of the course through their own input.

I encourage my students to talk, question and debate the materials and topics I provide them, as much as possible. They take the class in new directions, which prepares them for real-life conversations and communication in English.

Authentic Materials Encourage Engagement

Generating interest in the class can be something of a slog when your materials are outdated, unrealistic and culturally irrelevant. Textbooks can’t help being static, but let’s face it; the average warmer question they provide is so uninspiring that it may as well not be there.  If we look at something typical off the shelf in my staff room, you’ll see what I mean;

“Do you like talking with your friends? If so, what sort of things do you talk about?”

Seriously?  a)  Who doesn’t like talking to their friends, and quite frankly – b) what business is it of ours what they talk about?  If you were talking to a stranger, they’d probably smile uncomfortably and edge away slowly. I don’t want to teach my students how to be socially awkward.

We have to engage, we have to encourage, we have to direct and we have put our students in such a position that they can use language in as natural a way as possible. For these reasons, if chosen correctly, authentic materials can make our jobs much, much easier.

For example, my class of advanced adults recently took it upon themselves to debate the nature of true love. Now believe me – being a rather emotionally repressed Englishman – that was not something I had planned. We were looking at 6 word stories (as popularised by Ernest Hemmingway), which you can find quite easily online (  Their conversation arose from the materials in a way I hadn’t foreseen, but I was happy to let it go on as they were using English in the way it should be used, even including some of the grammar we’d been looking at before. They were quite vehement in their opinions; with some suggesting that true love doesn’t exist, others saying that “true” love can fade and you can find it again, and others saying there is only one true love. I monitored and gave corrections as I would have done with any other activity.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t just wing it and chat to my students, but there is definitely room for improvisation, spontaneity and the odd unplugged session too.

I also think that if you look at a class as a dialogue between the student and teacher, you begin to see the materials in a different light.

Good teaching is about showing, not telling – and an appropriate choice of materials, be they textbook-based or authentic, will help the teacher enable this. Your students should be able to uncover the message, grammar or language for themselves. I am a fan of the discovery method (if you’re not sure check out , because if you are able to work something out for yourself you are far more likely to learn from it.

On the flip-side, if we pick the wrong materials for a particular class, we can experience a big flop. The students can be discouraged (I can’t understand “real” English), offended (“Does the teacher honestly think I like Justin Bieber?)” or simply unengaged (“yawn”).

Selecting the Right Stuff and Improving the Dynamic

Regardless of whether I’m using authentic materials or not, I try to ask myself a couple of questions during the class, to keep it on track:

  • Is the language natural? I.e. would this conversation be had in the real world?
  • Is fluency being sacrificed for accuracy? (Obviously, this is inevitable sometimes).
  • Are the students really talking, or are they just going through the motions?

The traditional rigidity of the textbook material tends to discourage spontaneity in the classroom, which is sad because there is so much potential there! For the most part, textbooks are well-structured and have an engage, study/practise, activate format – which is fine, however they fail in one key aspect, in my opinion, and that is true contextualisation and authenticity.

I try to think about the following criteria when selecting material for a class:

  1. Engagement & Relevance – would the class want to talk about this material if they were not in class?
  2. Language point – can the material be used to teach something specific?
  3. Difficulty (accent, speed, vocabulary, register) – Are the students going to be motivated or discouraged by the level of difficulty?
  4. Context – is the language being used in a natural way?

Here’s a clip on the BBC website that I recently used in a one-to-one class:

Now it’s okay, though it’s not something that interests me particularly. My student, however, happens to know everything there is to know about cycling and it was something she could talk about with me without too much effort.

In the example above – she was able to engage with the material because she was a cycling fan, and felt strongly about the issue of doping.

As a rule, the material itself does not need to have the language you want the students to produce either, it should, however, naturally provoke your students into using it.  We were able to look at phrases and vocabulary used – and in terms of language point we were able to talk about regrets; If only he had / He wishes he could have…etc.

She was also encouraged because the material was clear enough for her to understand, which meant she felt on a par with native speakers. This kind of extrinsic motivation is key to encouraging students to practise their English outside of the classroom and giving them confidence that they can “do it for real”.

Authentic materials help your students apply rules to language, not language to rules.

Why teach an idiom when there is no means to use it naturally? Why look at a grammar rule and then forcibly construct language around it?  A student will have a set of phrases they know but can’t use. They’ll learn a language framework with no words to hang from it.

I have had many students with a good grasp of grammar, but who have difficulty in stringing more than a few words together – or have a very faltering level of fluency at best. They’re wont to improve once I move away from textbook material and grammar-focused exercises because they stop trying to place pieces of a horrible grammar puzzle together and start to communicate with each other.

For this reason I believe that contextualisation of grammar and language point is essential. People stop seeing the rules, they see the language.  And this is where authentic materials really shine. I think it’s better to give them something authentic and break it apart and wrench out the guts afterwards. In that way they contextualise the rule, the idiom, the language point, for themselves and then begin to be able to use it in the right context.  In any case, in my experience, this seems to be more effective than trying to apply language to rules.  For this reason, I try to use materials that the students are able to engage with, and are able to say something about.

I find that watching a viral video or reading a local news-story can be far more interesting than hearing about a made up character in a student textbook.  Naturally, what you do with the material depends on its content and nature; I think the material has to be used in a obvious way – for a photograph, for example,  describing events that led up to that particular scenario, would not usually be forced.

The main objective has to be learning, not teaching, showing, not telling – and that can sometimes mean taking a step back in the classroom and letting the students lead the conversation. Correction and input are part of the rhythm. Finding authentic material that connects to their lives is one way of doing this – and if you have enabled them to do this, you’re fostering a friendly classroom environment and inspiring them to produce natural language. Just like in real life.

George Chilton


4 thoughts on “Bringing the outside in by George Chilton

  1. ‘Engagement & Relevance – would the class want to talk about this material if they were not in class?’

    Absolutely vital, isn’t it. I deal with young learners and they are so often bored by the material they are presented with. Last week I taught a lesson about ‘processed corn products’ to some teenagers. As you can imagine, they weren’t particularly enthused. If they get to chat about something they would talk about outside of class, the difference is immense. I find you not only get more language from them, but it seems to be more structured and coherent. The very fact that they are talking about something that matters to them seems to make them strive to put it across in the best way possible.

    Great post.

    • Hi Barry,

      Thanks very much for your comment. Absolutely, though it can be pretty hard to get them talking even when it comes to things they like! Showing enthusiasm in your English class isn’t necessarily the coolest thing to do when you’re 15.

      Framing the lessons in a context they’ll engage with is really hard. I find that if the topic is related to something local they’ll have a lot to say about it and Facebook themed lessons always seem to work too.

      I teach a few teen groups at the moment and I find that they like a mixture of the silly and serious, and still have a tendency to like *gross* topics, which is probably why “Horrible Histories” has been so popular in schools.

      We had a brief look at Super Size Me last week and, after talking about healthy eating, I managed to skew the topic on to then reading about a variety of strange or disgusting delicacies from around the world. Finishing up by creating horrible menus and some interesting restaurant role-plays. The students seemed to enjoy it and were fairly productive. The material was difficult, but I think it’s a matter of grading the task rather than the material. Have you tried asking them to suggest topics? I do that with some of my classes – I try to use their ideas in class, and if they say it’s boring, I tell them it was their idea.


      • Hi George,

        Thanks for the reply. I agree that it can be hard to get the ‘too cool for school’ teens talking. I have to say I am very lucky at the moment. Every class I have is full of (mostly) eager students. Not always the case of course. I’ve had many tough classes. I’m enjoying it while I can.

        I haven’t been letting them suggest their own ideas, but it is certainly something I’ll look at doing soon. Will be interesting to see what effect it has on the classes.


        • I think it’s a good way of giving them some autonomy and responsibility – I get them to work in teams and get them to write down things that would make a fun English class – making sure they include topics they’d like to look at. Some of the answers you’ll get won’t be feasible I guess, but you always have the right to veto!

          I currently teach in Spain, but I used to teach in South Korea. The kids are pretty different, so I’m not sure how it’ll work in the classroom for you. I think it should be ok. Let me know how it goes, it’ll be an interesting experiement!


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